The 2-day conference led by Alberta Land Institute, in partnership with Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, provided a global context to explore regional planning in Alberta. Exploring the theme of regional planning, three policy streams were presented and followed by panel discussions, break out sessions and constructive debate. Here’s an overview of some of the key learnings that came from each session:
Regional Planning for Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans receive from nature. The term is applied specifically when natural processes contribute to human well-being, and when ecosystems help meet human-set environmental objectives. Much research has been done to explore the use of market-based approaches, rather than government regulation, to achieve environmental outcomes; essentially, how can societies compensate private individuals to provide ecosystem services for a market-determined fee? Knowledge and capacity for ecosystem services markets continues to grow, but much still needs to be understood before these services can be bought and sold in an open market. There is also a need to understand how markets for ecosystem services can integrate into regional planning and policy.
The first plenary session featured guest speaker David Pannell, Professor and Head of School of Agricultural and resource Economics, University of Western Australia. Pannell identified several Australian programs that have prioritized ecosystem service provision and linked ecosystem services to regional planning. One example of this is Australia’s Landcare program, a national network of local community groups working together to care for the country’s natural resources through “sound land management practices and sustainable productivity.” Could such a program be successfully applied in Alberta?
Key learning: As Pannell talked about Australia’s ecosystem service programs he noted strengths and many of the weaknesses, and attributed the success of the programs to 4 key elements:
He also shared how the programs were improved based on their learnings, information and analysis. He concluded with the following advice for Alberta, “at least if you make mistakes, make new ones”.
Alberta’s Agriculture Industries in a Changing Context
How does population expansion in Alberta municipalities affect the surrounding areas, particularly the productive agricultural land? What happens to land values as communities grow? With greater pressures on land use and increasing demands on water, how can water needs be balanced?
Andrew Plantinga is a professor in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Plantinga offered insights on how American jurisdictions are balancing the needs and concerns of the agriculture industries and municipalities. He noted that private industry or property owners have information about their production including costs that government cannot determine, and this limits government when developing effective policy, because they have incomplete information.
Key Learning: Market-based approaches such as reverse auctions can provide information, otherwise inaccessible to government that can be used to inform policy decision making.
Governance and Regional Planning for Sustainability
The Land Use Framework is the overarching policy which sets out to manage Alberta’s lands and natural resources to achieve the long-term environmental, social and economic goals of the province. The final policy stream focused on the Land Use Framework (particularly, the regional plans within the framework), how well is it achieving its environmental objectives and what can we learn as the Framework continues to evolve?
Professor Allan Wallis (University of Colorado Denver) offered insight into governance and regional planning by sharing three case studies of growth management plans in the U.S. Using the experience gained through these growth management plans, Wallis indicates the practical lessons about governance and regional planning that can be applied in Alberta are:
Several recurring ideas were presented over the course of the two days for regional planning in Alberta including the need to address policy gaps, the importance of economic diversification and encouraging collaboration under strong leadership. But the most common thread among each policy stream discussion was the need for meaningful, strategic stakeholder engagement; engagement across various disciplines, governments, communities and industries. As regional planning addresses a broad spectrum of land use issues, working together across sector boundaries is a necessary component, and collaboration can be strengthened by fostering meaningful and strategic participation. Effective engagement is more than just bringing people together. In fact, Professor Wallis identified a strategic engagement “toolkit” to include engagement, outreach, education and training: Engaging stakeholders by asking “what do you value?” to learn their needs and concerns, initiating outreach opportunities to share information, and educating and training planners and decision makers to create a community of understanding around the issues and needs present. Applying this toolkit can help decision makers to better understand how we can translate the various needs into land use planning on the ground.